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Republican candidates for California governor square off at debate over harassment allegations, conservative credentials

Republican candidates for California governor square off at debate over harassment allegations, conservative credentials
GOP candidates for California governor John Cox, former Rep. Doug Ose and Assemblyman Travis Allen squared off in a debate at San Francisco's City Club on Tuesday. (Sophia Bollag / For the L.A. Times)

Debate over sexual misconduct in politics and a comparison of conservative bona fides dominated a boisterous forum Tuesday among the three top Republican candidates for California governor.

The San Francisco matchup came on the heels of news that one of the GOP contenders, Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach, was named in a 2013 harassment complaint disclosed Friday by the California Legislature. The event also marked the first time former Sacramento-area Rep. Doug Ose appeared on a debate stage since joining the race last month.

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Ose pitched himself as the most experienced politician in the room and showed an eagerness to attack his opponents, Allen and businessman John Cox of San Diego County. The discussion was interrupted several times by heated personal exchanges between the candidates as they sized up each other's credentials.

When confronted with a question about the harassment allegations against him, Allen defended his behavior and downplayed the incident.

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"In my case there may have been a misunderstanding, perhaps because I was too friendly," he said at the forum, which was hosted by the San Francisco Chronicle. "At no time in the past, nor at any time in the future have I ever engaged in behavior that was inappropriate."

Allen was formally reprimanded by the Legislature after a staff member reported in 2013 he had squeezed her shoulders and made other unwanted physical contact, making her uncomfortable. After an investigation, the Assembly's chief administrator told Allen to be "very conscious of his conduct."

The accusations surfaced Friday when the Legislature released documents on sexual harassment complaints filed against lawmakers and top legislative staffers. They were revealed amid a nationwide conversation about sexual misconduct in the workplace that focused first on Hollywood, with scrutiny quickly spreading to other industries and institutions, including California's Capitol.

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Allen said he supports the movement to crack down on sexual harassment and assault, and accused Democratic leaders in the Legislature of releasing the documents as a political attack. The record also revealed complaints against three sitting Democratic lawmakers.

Cox and Ose used the news about Allen as an opportunity to tout the lack of allegations against them. All three candidates criticized Democratic front-runners in the race, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for past infidelities. Both former mayors had affairs while they were in office.

"I don't know what caused the predatory culture to arise in our Capitol or our politics," Ose said. "It's predatory and it's corrupt. It needs to stop and the only way to do it is to take them out of office."

Earlier in the day, state election officials announced that Cox's proposal to dramatically change how state lawmakers are elected to the Legislature failed to qualify for the ballot. The initiative would have created 12,000 elected neighborhood representatives, 120 of whom would ultimately go to Sacramento to craft legislation. It would also have cut the Legislature's budget by one third.

Cox said during the debate that he plans to challenge the initiative's failure to qualify, and still intends to bring the issue before voters.

"We will restructure this so that the people are back in charge, so that they have true accountability," he said.

Allen's initiative to repeal a newgas tax failed to qualify for the ballot last month. The assemblyman, who arrived late to the debate, blamed the delay on San Francisco traffic and used a joke about his tardiness to segue into a discussion of the levy. He has joined Cox in supporting a separate effort to put a gas tax repeal before voters.

To secure a spot in the general election, the Republicans will have to significantly boost their profile with voters ahead of the June primary, when the top two finishers will advance to the November ballot regardless of party. The Republicans are trailing the top three Democrats in the polls.

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They've also raised far less money than their Democratic challengers. Cox raised $3.5 million last year, contributing $3 million of his own money to his campaign. Allen's campaign has reported $200,000 in debt. Ose has not yet had to disclose information about his campaign's finances, having entered the race last month.

Meanwhile, Newsom has more than $16 million, while Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang each have just under $6 million in cash on hand.

As Ose highlighted his political experience at the debate, Cox emphasized his record in business. Ose and Cox — both 62 — mocked the 44-year-old Allen for his age, implying he lacked the experience to be governor.

The candidates largely aligned in their views on immigration, climate change, education, healthcare and housing policy. All three emphasized their support of President Trump. Allen, long a vocal supporter of the president, engaged in a protracted argument with Ose over how ardently each backed Trump's campaign. Cox voted for another candidate, but said he supports the work Trump has done since becoming president.

"I have to say, we are making news tonight," said moderator John Diaz, the Chronicle's editorial page editor. "This is the first time in San Francisco I have heard an argument among people about who most supports Donald Trump."

Sophia Bollag is a special correspondent.

Follow @SophiaBollag on Twitter.

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